A recently-revealed piece of papyrus smaller than a credit card shows ancient claim to Jesus’ wife.
by Mark Bilby, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology
There are numerous reasons to be highly skeptical about the newly discovered, so-called “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus fragment. Dr. Stephen Emmel, a leading international Coptologist, has already expressed serious doubts about its authenticity, as have other experts.
Even if the fragment were shown to be authentic, it is: too partial (a tiny fragment without broader literary context); too ambiguous (the lacunae/gaps within the fragment prevent one from knowing exactly to whom “my wife” might refer); too late (4th century); too far removed (a Coptic text without any known Greek antecedent); too isolated (the only text in antiquity to mention Jesus having a wife) and too contradictory to key early texts (canonical and non-canonical) about Jesus and Mary (which depict her as an apostle and his leading female disciple, not as his wife) to be taken seriously as evidence about the historical Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
While some reports are circulating claiming that “we cannot know” that Jesus was really single and celibate, this is by far the most reasonable conclusion based on the evidence of 1st century CE Judaism (Josephus’ description of the Essenes), the earliest Christian texts (esp. 1 Corinthians, as well as canonical and non-canonical Gospels), and the quite early obsession that followers of Jesus had with celibacy as a form of imitating Christ and some of his apostles (e.g., the stories of Paul and Thecla).
Still, even exaggerated and sensationalist news reports can have an educational value—to push historians and theologians to re-examine ancient texts and traditions, and to explore questions whose answers have often been taken for granted. Such controversies can also lead to fruitful self-examination. Why does it even matter to us if Jesus was celibate or not?
Churches in the US often deify the nuclear family and don’t take Jesus’ celibacy seriously as something deserving of imitation. We tell people to be like Jesus, but also to get married and have kids in order to be accepted. Being single and celibate is often looked upon not as a gift to the Church, but instead as a social stigma and career obstacle. Contrary to Jesus’ own teaching, we envision heaven as a permanent extension of the nuclear family. Perhaps this new controversy can help us remember why celibacy was not incidental to Jesus, nor some random fact of history, but actually quite central to the life and preaching of Jesus, as well as that of the Church throughout history.
3. Time period
4. Coptic text
5. Only known text with such claims
6. Contradicts credited earlier texts